Is Discipleship Part of Your Church’s DNA?

I think it’s safe to say that pretty much EVERY pastor wants to lead a church where disciples are made in obedience to Jesus’ Great Commission. The problem in many churches is that discipleship – and therefore creating a discipleship culture – is not an actual priority of the everyday life of the congregation, no matter what their mission statement claims.

If you’re like most pastors in this situation, the frustration can be overwhelming as you try to determine why this is the case in your church and then determine what to do about it after you have identified the source(s) of the problem.

So I want to give an overview of how you can begin creating a discipleship culture in your congregation – a culture that says making disciples and raising disciplemakers is part of the very DNA of your church. But first we need to look at some…

Reasons Disciplemaking is not a priority in many churches

There are several reasons discipleship is not part of the DNA of a local church.  Here are just a few:

  • There is disagreement as to the definition of “disciple.”

Many think that every believer is a disciple. We need to keep in mind, however, that Jesus had many people who believed in Him until He talked about counting the cost of following Him as a lifestyle. They decided that believing was enough, and that following was too hard.

My definition of a “disciple” is this: “a follower of Jesus who loves and lives for Him above all else.” Admittedly, that encompasses a lot – being in the Scriptures, praying, obedience, making Jesus the highest priority of living, growing in spiritual maturity, denying oneself, displaying the fruit of the Spirit, giving, etc. And I’m very aware that not every disciple lives for Jesus above themselves all the time. But as a general lifestyle, that is one of the things that defines them.

Not everyone who puts their faith in Christ automatically submits to Jesus as Lord, right? You and I both know people who “prayed the prayer” years ago, but are not maturing, and are living for themselves instead of Jesus just as much as before. Would they still be counted as disciples? I don’t think so, and I’m guessing you don’t really think so, either.

  • Discipleship is seen as completing a program rather than a deepening relationship with Jesus.

I don’t have a problem with programs to help with discipleship – in fact, I’m developing one right now. However, the goal of discipleship isn’t completing a program. The goal is maturity in Christ and the ability to help others reach that goal. Programs are TOOLS, not GOALS.

Involvement in small group Bible studies, Sunday School, or membership classes can definitely aid in discipleship, but it can’t end there. Creating a discipleship CULTURE is the process where the very fabric of church life is made up of making disciples and raising disciplemakers using whatever tools are available and necessary.

  • Intentional disciplemaking is not a priority in terms of time, budget, recruiting volunteers, or staffing.

This is especially true if your definition of discipleship ends at being a believer. Then there is no need to spend money or find someone to help in that area.

Being a former pastor of a small church, I can totally relate to the fact that dollars can only go so far – especially when you might already be stretched to keep the lights on, keep up on current programs (maybe some of these need to go???), getting the carpet cleaned or replaced, fixing a leaky roof, and oh yeah – paying you!

This was a struggle during my entire time at the church I pastored. Only a handful of people even cared about reaching out to the lost, and discipleship was not even on the radar for more than a few of these. Trying to educate the congregation on the importance of obeying Jesus’ commission was a full-time task. Therefore, trying to budget for this was tough. It meant moving money from other things to be intentional about evangelism and discipleship. This was a tough sell for some, but it was necessary.

Creating a discipleship culture is worth the effort, money, and time. Because obedience to Jesus is worth it.

  • Churches are missing the command in the Commission.

The Great Commission says to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Many people and churches think the command is to “go.” In actuality, the main command in this passage is to “make disciples.” In the Greek, the command is closer to “As you are going, make disciples.” (For some interesting reading on this, I found two articles here and here. One agrees with me, the other doesn’t. But they are both good articles.)

Jesus knew the Church would be spread throughout the world due to persecution and the apostles would travel to other lands. He knew there would be “going.” His command was that in the going, they were to make disciples.

Hand in hand with this is the belief that if the local church is supporting international missions, particularly with dollars and prayers, it is fulfilling its part in the Great Commission. If your understanding of the Commission is only “Go,” then it’s easy to see why this is true.

So how do you create a culture where you can make disciples and raise disciplemakers?

I’m so glad you asked! Let me suggest four things that need to happen. First…

  • Get back to the basic idea that JESUS OWNS THE CHURCH.

That seems pretty basic, right? We all believe that Jesus bought the Church (including the local fellowship or congregation) with His blood on the Cross. The Church belongs to Him.

But in reality, there are plenty of people in many churches who think THEY own the church, whether they admit it or not, or whether they are conscious of it or not.

For instance, the pastor might think he owns the church, knowingly or unknowingly. In many churches, the pastor makes all the decisions, and everything must be approved by him. That might have its place at the very beginning of a church plant, but that is not the biblical ideal of a pastor long-term. The pastor is supposed to LEAD the congregation in the vision he believes God has given him for that fellowship, which should obviously include fulfilling the Great Commission.

Maybe it’s not the pastor, but the elder board (or church board, or deacons or whatever they are called in your church). In this case, everything is done by committee, and nothing can be done without their express permission, and the pastor is often just a hireling to do their bidding. Power is the issue – power over the pastor and direction of the church, no matter what anybody (including Jesus) says…

Maybe in your church it’s the givers who think they own the church. They are aware of their power to withhold their funds for purchases and programs they don’t like. And the church leadership often caves in because losing those funds would be catastrophic to the budget. This attitude by the givers has a simple name: sin. And it might take a brave word from you and your leaders to let these people know that you are moving on with the mission regardless of the givers’ willingness to participate financially.

Another group who often thinks they own the church is the long-termers. For them the congregation is their baby and they’ll protect it to the death (and sometimes they do!). “We’ve never done it that way!” is their rallying cry. Or this one: “We’ve seen a lot of pastors come and go – and if you don’t toe the line, you’ll be gone, too. We were here before you got here, and we’ll be here long after you’re gone…”

Maybe it’s the Kitchen Committee, a former pastor who is still around, a powerful family or even your denomination. The “ownership” group might be different for your congregation, but the issue is the same: Jesus owns the local church. No one else has a legitimate claim to it.

And because of that, you need to then…

  • Understand that JESUS GETS TO TELL IT WHAT TO DO.

One of the things He told it to do was to make disciples.

My main spiritual gift is evangelism. I LOVE telling people about Jesus and helping them come to faith in Him. I’ve been blessed with being able to share Christ from the pulpit and across the table over a meal, in public city-wide events, and in prisons and jails. My joy at seeing someone respond to the good news of Jesus is uncontainable. Ask my wife what I’m like after that happens. She doesn’t necessarily contemplate having me institutionalized, but she knows I’ll be walking on the ceiling for the next few days…

As important as evangelism is, there is more to building God’s kingdom than that, because as I mentioned earlier, a believer isn’t automatically a disciple.

New believers need to be established in the basics and essentials of the faith so they can grow in maturity and learn how to live for Jesus, with the goal of reproducing that in other’s lives.

Discipleship INCLUDES evangelism, because (1) a person needs to be a believer to be a disciple, and (2) disciples need to be equipped to share Christ with others. Evangelism and discipleship are not two separate items – they are two sides of the same coin.

  • Intentionally evaluate your current discipleship culture.

Ask questions like:

Are the people in your church continuing to grow in love and relationship with Jesus on an individual basis?

Are they feeding themselves through the Scriptures apart from Sunday sermons? (Are they in the Word apart from church services0?

Is lifechange occurring and are they seeking to continually grow in Christlikeness?

Are they reflecting the love of Jesus toward people who don’t know Him yet?

Are they equipped to help others become believers and disciples of Jesus?

If the answers to some or all these questions is, “no,” then it’s time to look at what you’re doing and why.

At the end of this post, I have a link to a free questionnaire you can download and use in your church to evaluate where you stand in terms of a discipleship culture.

  • Intentionally look for materials to help you make disciples and raise disciplemakers.

There are LOTS of things out there, and many of them are very inexpensive. Look for materials that will help your current people grow in Christ and help them make disciples as well. Materials should be easy to understand by those using them as well as by your new disciples.

My company, Discipleship DNA, has materials specifically designed to help new believers become established, become involved in long-term discipleship relationships, and equip disciples to make other disciples. You can learn more HERE.

So why am I developing more materials if there is already so much out there? Because like hats labelled “One size fit’s all,” not all materials work for all churches. My materials and services will fit some churches that other materials won’t.

  • See discipleship not as something the church DOES, but something the church IS.

In other words, discipleship is not just a program (remember, a program is a tool). Discipleship needs to be part of the DNA of the church. Discipling new believers and raising disciplemakers should be as much part of your church as the Sunday service.

That’s what creating a discipleship culture is about. Transforming your culture so disciplemaking is an inseparable part of who you are as a church

Hey pastor – let me encourage you with something: DISCIPLEMAKING IS NOT YOUR JOB!!

Okay, it’s part of your job – but only because pastors should model the behavior they want to see in their own people…

I bring this up because the culture of many churches, especially in the US, is that anything related to ministry is the pastor’s job. And let’s be honest – a lot of what people think pastors should do is unscriptural and unrealistic given your other duties.

But here’s what God says:

 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers,  to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up  until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Ephesians 4:11-13

Your job is to equip THEM to do the work of ministry – including the work of making disciples. This may be a hard sell for your people, but it’s too important to let go. You may get some pushback, or maybe even lose some key people. But you will be able to stand before God and tell Him that you put HIS mission before the personal priorities and agendas of others. (I have a post about this, geared toward your lay leaders HERE – link to “Setting the Pastor Free from Unbiblical Expectations)

God had to convict me of this during my pastorate. One summer evening as I sat in a church camp meeting He let me know that I had been more concerned with pleasing people in the church and keeping the peace than pleasing Him (Galatians 1:10). I had to repent. That following Sunday I let the congregation know that I was back on the mission, and that I would not be dissuaded from that again.

Guess what – some people weren’t happy…  But even years later as I was ending my pastorate, we were putting things in place to help our church become more effective in making disciples.

I’d love to tell you we had a flourishing disciplemaking program when I left, but that wouldn’t be true. The culture was changing, though, and key people were getting on board. And that’s huge for you, pastor.

Why? Because not everyone has to be on board. If you can get your key people in the congregation on board, that number can grow, and the next thing you know you have a culture that is focused on the Great Commission.

And Jesus smiles.

Where do you start?

Start with sitting down with your leadership and evaluating your current discipleship situation. Download this FREE survey (link to survey at website) that you can take and give to your key leaders. Feel free to make as many copies as you like.

Give these out with a DEADLINE to have completed, and set a date to meet with all of them to discuss the results.

Based on that discussion, you can move to looking at ways to create or improve your discipleship culture.

If you would like me to evaluate your survey and give feedback, you can have your people email them directly to me. I will contact you to schedule a time for me to talk with you (and your leaders if you wish) by phone or video conference. This consultation is also free. There is absolutely no charge and no obligation for us to visit about your current discipleship culture.

I want you to see where you really stand in relation to Christ’s Great Commission to make disciples. If my materials will help you with that, great. If not, then you need to find the materials that will! If nothing else, this conversation will allow me to pray with and for you as you move forward in making disciples.

The goal is obedience to Jesus’ Great Commission

Discipleship isn’t an option for your church – it’s the JOB of your church. What will you do to lead it to be a fellowship where making disciples and raising disciplemakers is part of the actual DNA of your church?

I would LOVE to hear what you are doing in your church to make discipleship part of your church’s DNA. You can be an encouragement to others. I would also like to hear some of the barriers you have faced and how you overcame them. With your permission, I would like to incorporate some of these things in updated versions of the materials from Discipleship DNA. Comment below with your experiences and questions.

Don’t forget to download your FREE survey (link)!